The town of Buellton does not initially seem like an ideal place to grasp the allure of the Santa Ynez Valley, a rugged swath of Santa Barbara County that's home to one of California's most intriguing wine regions. There are no rolling hills of grapevines, no lavish vineyards, no fancy hotels. Buellton's most noteworthy attractions are a restaurant that has proudly served split pea soup since 1924 and a roadside curiosity just outside the city limits called OstrichLand USA, where flocks of the springy-necked birds strut in an open field for tourists. The rest, to the untrained eye, is a strip of motels and gas stations.
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“Yet this is where a lot of the actual magic happens,” Scott Sampler remarked one sun-speckled afternoon. The video director turned winemaker was leading me through Industrial Way, a cluster of warehouses off the main drag that has for decades been a hub of local wine production. Emblematic of the Santa Ynez Valley's back-road charm, the district has in recent years evolved into an unexpectedly prime spot to spend a languid afternoon. There is a rollicking brewery, two small-batch liquor distilleries, a smattering of ad hoc tasting rooms, and one of the Valley's most essential restaurants, Industrial Eats, where eclectic small plates are served with casual nonchalance at communal tables.
Sampler ushered me into his winery, Central Coast Group Project, a spartan space where he works alone crafting Italian- and Rhône-inspired natural wine and blends that are featured at restaurants like Horses, the celebrity magnet in Los Angeles. His tastings are informal affairs, with appointments made over Instagram and wines of astonishing complexity served in a nook cluttered with esoteric art books and vintage vinyl. “It's far from the bougie, supercurated wine-country thing, but that's kind of the point,” he said with a wry laugh while pouring me tastes, music blaring, as grapes from a recent harvest fermented in vats a few feet away. “What we've got going on here is a real vibe.”
If you live two and a half hours southeast in Los Angeles, as I do, it is this vibe that has made the Santa Ynez Valley the weekend retreat favored by those seeking the thrill of discovery as much as a scintillating Pinot Noir. Though not exactly a secret—the region was the backdrop for the 2004 oenophile film Sideways—it has remained overshadowed by Napa and Sonoma, quietly maturing into a destination where old-school kitsch and new-school sophistication braid into something singular. Once hardscrabble cowboy country and still an epicenter of horse ranching, the region is composed of a number of small towns, each with a unique flair. Up the road from Buellton is Solvang, settled by the Danish in 1911, which looks like a scene from Hans Christian Andersen with its main street of windmills, gabled roofs, spires, and clock towers. Los Alamos, meanwhile, occupies a charming Old West strip so lovingly preserved that you wouldn't be surprised if a midday duel broke out. Los Olivos, once best known as the site of Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch, features a walkable downtown of pastel Victorians. Over the course of a few days spent driving the winding roads among these enclaves, bopping into stately vineyards and slipping into restaurants for excellent meals, I felt connected to something genuinely and distinctly Californian—as opposed to the California packaged for global consumption.
“You come here and you just get instantly addicted—to the raw open nature, that relaxing wine-country feeling without the corporate veil now associated with Napa,” said Kimberly Walker, whose adoration for the area led her and two partners to purchase a ramshackle motel on a hill at the edge of Los Alamos nearly five years ago and transform it into Skyview, a sleek hotel with 360-degree views of the Valley's oak-studded vistas. I holed up there for part of my stay before checking out her second, the two-year-old Hotel Ynez, another chicly reimagined motel. Walker's properties have brought new panache to the region while paying tribute to its rugged frontier heritage. “The towns here are still places where every business is owner-operated in the truest sense,” she told me. “The owner is preparing your food, the winemaker is pouring your wine, and everyone you meet has a fascinating story of how they ended up here.”
Indeed, to spend time in the Valley is to understand it as a place shaped by people chasing something personal and ephemeral—an ethos that goes back to the earliest days of winemaking here. “No one here cared what anyone else was doing, and it's still kind of the Wild West in terms of a frontier wine region,” said Pete Stolpman when I visited him one morning at Stolpman Vineyards, the winery he runs in Ballard Canyon. It's a sprawling 220-acre property where visitors can book hikes followed by a tasting at his outpost in Los Olivos. His father, Tom, a lawyer, bought the land in 1990; Pete, disillusioned with his career in business, started running it in 2009, specializing in Syrah and Roussanne grapes and creating some of the area's most delicious wines.
Driving me through the vineyard's dirt roads in his pickup, Stolpman waxed poetic about the unique topography that led wily pioneers to first plant grapes here in the early 1970s. “We're in what's called a transverse valley,” he explained, noting that while most California wine regions run north to south, the Santa Ynez mountains are oriented west to east, allowing for the chill of the Pacific to enter the valley unencumbered. In addition to creating a reliably striking moment every morning—as we bounced along, a blanket fog was being dissipated by the sun—the result is a Xanadu for winemaking: a tapestry of microclimates that makes for a longer growing season and allows a dizzying number of grape varietals to thrive. “The reason it feels like such a young, pioneering place is because, well, it really is,” said Stolpman. “When it comes to wine, we're still figuring out everything that can be grown on and made from this land.”
Stolpman has seen the area change over the years, especially lately, with pandemic-rattled transplants moving in from LA. New businesses have been springing up at a faster clip, most notably the Inn at Mattei's Tavern, a brand-new outpost from Auberge Resorts in Los Olivos. Built around Mattei's Tavern, a historic inn dating back to 1886, the property introduces a previously unimaginable level of luxury and global recognition to the Santa Ynez Valley. Did Stolpman, I wondered, view the glossy arrival as a threat to the scrappy spirit he was extolling? “Santa Barbara County does not make such developments easy,” he told me. “So it's not like we're about to be inundated with corporations.” Pausing to take in the epic sweep of land from his vineyard, he told me the recent changes are in keeping with the Valley's roots: “What I like is that it all started with wine in the purest sense. First you had the grape growers, people like my dad, and now you now have everything you want with world-class wine—great hotels, cool restaurants—coming of age alongside the wine industry.”
When people talk about the culinary evolution of the Santa Ynez Valley, they invariably end up talking about Daisy and Greg Ryan, a young couple who have been central to putting the region on the radar of seasoned foodies. Having cut their teeth working together in establishments like New York's Per Se and Austin's Jeffery's and Josephine House, they moved to the Valley to raise a family. Shortly afterward, in 2018, they opened Bell's, a restaurant set in a former bank in Los Alamos, which somehow manages to be both an unpretentious neighborhood joint and a destination dining establishment. Daisy, who grew up in the area, runs the kitchen, creating hyperlocal set-course menus that riff on classic French cuisine, recently earning Bell's its first Michelin star. Like many Valley visitors, my girlfriend and I took our first trip to the area after scoring seats at the restaurant's small bar, where we spent the following few hours enjoying a meal like no other in a trancelike stupor.